Rough review of academic functions in Jeffco Schools

Expert with history in Colorado education presents to school board

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 11/28/21

Educational leadership consultant Jaime Aquino gave a review of academic functions in the district during the Nov. 10, Jeffco Board of Education study session. Aquino was hired as a consultant to …

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Rough review of academic functions in Jeffco Schools

Expert with history in Colorado education presents to school board

Posted

Educational leadership consultant Jaime Aquino gave a review of academic functions in the district during the Nov. 10, Jeffco Board of Education study session. Aquino was hired as a consultant to conduct the review.

Aside from analyzing academic functions, the review sought to develop a system-wide plan to strengthen the District’s capacity to better serve all schools, support teachers and educational support staff.

Aquino has held several high-profile positions during the course of his career, including stints as Chief Academic Officer for Denver Public Schools, and Instructional Superintendent in the NYC Department of Education.

Before Aquino gave his findings, Jeffco Schools Superintendent, Tracey Dorland, offered a bit of praise about the District in general.

“We are a good District. We have many bright spots,” she said. “And even though we have all of these bright spots, the findings found that our people in the system are not satisfied with where we are.”

Dorland said there’s a strong collective will to be the best the District can be for its students and families.

“We are not complacent in Jeffco,” she said.

She added that the District has a strong desire to continuously improve and that there are many good practices happening in Jeffco. The issue, she said, is that those practices are not systemic.

“The review is not intended to blame a group or a team or individuals. It is to support teachers and leaders as thy strive to enrich instruction,” Dorland said.

Jeffco has seen a lot of turnover at the top. Counting interims, Dorland is the sixth superintendent the district has had in seven years. 

The District’s bright spots, according to Dorland, include talented, hardworking staff, community engagement and general improvement in graduation rates. The district also scored above current state averages in CMAS, PSAT and SAT tests.

Among not-so-good student learning trends are declining student achievement results from 2017 forward and impacts of learning loss during the pandemic.

Aquino said he was proud to engage with the board in its attempt to move the District from good, to great, to extraordinary.

His findings were classified into five buckets including Leadership, Management and Strategic Design; Organizational Structure; Curriculum and Instruction; Data and Accountability; and Human Capital.

In the Leadership, Management and Strategic Direction category, Aquino said he found a lack of shared understanding of the district’s strategic direction, creating a system that lacks coherence. He added that there also was a lack of clear and coherent communication protocol to ensure strategies and decisions related to curriculum and instruction are relayed and understood by schools, as well as a lack of system coherence between and among schools due to a culture that values autonomy without accountability.

Finally, he said there appears to be an insufficient sense of urgency regarding improving achievement for all students.

In the Organization Structure, Data and Accountability category, he said the Ed Center (also referred to as the District) is not set up to support schools, teaching and learning. In regards to data, Aquino’s review found little evidence of a systematic approach to identify, execute and monitor strategies aimed at driving academic improvement.

In the review’s findings in the Curriculum and Instruction category, Aquino said there was evidence of an absence of shared understanding of standards throughout the system and that lessons do not appear to be aligned to state standards. The review also found what they considered to be a lack of rigor throughout the district. 

“This was even validated by one of the surveys for your students,” he said. “The item that gets the lowest rating was ‘students feeling academically challenged.’” Aquino’s review also found that the District seems to pay more attention to improving operational issues than it does to improving student learning. On that point, he said the same thing can be said about districts around the country, calling it a crisis in operations. Finally, he said the deficiencies of instructional coherence have led to a weak and disjointed instructional program.

After completing his roundup of the top 10 issues his review found in the district, Aquino opened up the floor to questions, giving board members an opportunity to discuss his findings.

Board member Susan Miller, a frequent critic of the District’s academic policies and procedures, spoke up first. She said something that could be addressed right away was how to bring in a curriculum that can provide students rigor, while honoring the autonomy of schools with the support, curriculum and data that’s needed. Miller stressed the need to address those issues with a sense of urgency.

Aquino agreed with Miller that the issues need to be taken seriously, but said addressing them quickly was different than addressing them with a sense of urgency.

“You need to make sure you’re making the right decisions, and the investments you’re going to make are going to last over time,” he said.

Aquino said in his opinion, within a district, after the superintendent, the most important role is that of the principal. He said the principal’s role is key because they’re close to the teachers and the students. He said everything else, like what takes place at the Ed Center (District), should be in support of schools.

Board President Susan Harmon said the challenge is to create a level of “system-ness” while retaining school autonomy, so that principals can be empowered in their leadership, and recreating that feeling of hope and better outcomes for students.

Aquino said there’s a cry from the community to be able to see the District as a school system and not a system of schools.

“And that means that many things have to happen. ...You have to be really transparent with the decisions you are making and of why you’re making these decisions,” he said. “And always tie those why’s to how it’s going to help kids.”

Jeffco Public Schools, Jaime Aquino, academic achievement

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